N Korea missile at launch site

2009-06-01 06:51

Seoul - North Korea has shifted its most advanced long-range missile - capable of reaching Alaska - to a new west coast launch site near the border with China, reports said on Monday, in a move that threatens to further escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang also banned ships from the waters off the west coast through the end of July, reports said.

The regime could fire the long-range missile as early as mid-June -around the time South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama hold a summit in Washington, the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul said, citing unidentified officials in Washington and Seoul.

The missile at the Dongchang-ni launch site on the northwest coast is believed to be a version of the Taepodong-2 rocket that the North fired on April 5 saying it was a satellite launch, the report said. The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper carried a similar report.

A new long-range missile launch would mark a significant escalation in tensions already running high after the North's April rocket launch and an underground nuclear test conducted a week ago. The UN Security Council has been discussing how to punish Pyongyang for the atomic blast.

North Korea also has custody of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts". Their trial begins on Thursday in Pyongyang.

Lee, hosting a summit of Southeast Asian leaders on the southern island of Jeju, warned the North against any provocation.

Alaska within striking range

"If North Korea turns its back on dialogue and peace and dare to carry out military threats and provocations, the Republic of Korea will never tolerate that," Lee said in a weekly radio address, using South Korea's official name. "I want to make clear that there won't be any compromise on things that threaten our nation's security."

North Korea also has designated a large area off its west coast as a "no-sail" zone through the end of next month, an indication Pyongyang could stage armed provocations around the disputed sea border, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified intelligence officials. The paper also said the North could launch the long-range missile in two weeks.

Seoul's Defence Ministry declined to confirm Monday's reports, saying it does not comment on intelligence matters. But a defence official confirmed on Sunday that US satellites had detected preparations to transport a missile for a test launch.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, the government spokesperson, said on Monday that a long-range missile test from North Korea appeared possible.

"Given that North Korea has carried out a nuclear test, we can't deny the possibility that they will further test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile," he told a news conference.

Japan's Defence Ministry predicted North Korea could launch a long-range missile within one or two months, the Sankei newspaper reported, without naming its sources. The paper said North Korea could simultaneously fire a mid-range missile.

The Defence Ministry declined to confirm the report.

The North's Taepodong-2 rocket managed to fly about 3 200km on April 5. The missile being readied for a new launch is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, with a range of up to 6 500km, the JoongAng Ilbo reported, citing an unnamed South Korean official.

That would put Alaska within striking range.

North Korea had threatened in late April to conduct nuclear and long-range missile tests, and restart its nuclear programme, if the Security Council failed to apologise for criticising its rocket launch.

Carrying out its threat, Pyongyang conducted an underground atomic blast last week. On Friday, it also warned it would take a further "self-defensive" measures if provoked by the Security Council. That threat was seen as referring to an ICBM test.

North Korea has been building the new launch site at Dongchang-ni for years. Last year, South Korean Defence Minister Lee Sang-hee told lawmakers that construction was about 80% complete. The site is now near completion, reports said on Monday.

Pyongyang is believed to have weaponised enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs, though experts believe scientists have not yet mastered the miniaturisation technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead onto a long-range missile.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, earning widespread condemnation and stiff UN sanctions.

Months later, the regime agreed to a disablement-for-aid pact signed by six nations, but that process has been stalled since last year. North Korea walked away from the negotiations in April.